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How Often Do Your Worries Actually Come True?

Not very, according to a brand new study.

Paolese/Adobe Stock
Source: Paolese/Adobe Stock

You've probably realized that the things you worry about rarely come true. Results from a recent study show just how unlikely most of our worries actually are.

Researchers at Penn State University had participants write down their specific worries for ten days whenever they noticed they were worrying. All participants had generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), which is characterized by pervasive and uncontrollable worry along with other symptoms (e.g., problems with concentration or sleep). Four times a day, they were prompted by text message to record any worries from the past two hours, to ensure that as many worries were captured as possible.

Study participants then reviewed their list of worries every evening over the next 30 days to see if any of them came true. The researchers focused on worries that could be tested in the 30-day period; for example, “I will fail my math exam tomorrow” would be testable, whereas “I’ll develop cancer at some point in my lifetime” would not. The average person reported three to four testable worries per day.

The result? A whopping 91 percent of worries were false alarms. And of the remaining 9 percent of worries that did come true, the outcome was better than expected about a third of the time. For about one in four participants, exactly zero of their worries materialized.

These findings underscore "worry's deceit," in the words of study authors Lucas S. LaFreniere and Michelle G. Newman. "Deceit" is a good word to describe the nature of worry, implicitly demanding that we pay attention to it because the threat is real. In reality, it's nearly always a false alarm.

Importantly, individuals whose worries came true less often were more likely to benefit from treatment for their worry and anxiety. Thus, keeping track of how one’s worries turn out seems to be an effective way to release compulsive worrying.

The authors propose that people who worry a lot “view worry as a valued means of coping.” They may see it as being useful for spotting and preventing true threats, or for avoiding being blindsided when bad things happen. Looking at the actual data about their worries likely changed their beliefs about its usefulness.

On the other hand, discovering that one’s worries are based in reality is, not surprisingly, less helpful. The researchers noted the possibility of a “double-edged sword,” suggesting that “if certain participants find that more of their worries actually do come true, treatment may be less powerful or even harmful.”

This was a relatively small study (29 participants), all of whom were undergraduate students with GAD. The majority (90 percent) were female and most were White (75 percent). It will be important to see if these results replicate in a larger and more diverse sample.

For now, it is reasonable to conclude that tracking one’s worries can be an effective way to discover their accuracy, and to diminish the distress that comes with chronic worrying (provided the worries are not confirmed). This is a welcome finding, particularly for those individuals with GAD, who may spend as much as one-quarter of their waking hours engaged in distracting and distressing worries.

The study will be published in a forthcoming issue of Behavior Therapy.

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LaFreniere, L. S., & Newman, M. G. (2019). Exposing worry’s deceit: Percentage of untrue worries in generalized anxiety disorder treatment. Behavior Therapy. doi:10.1016/j.beth.2019.07.003

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